April 17, 2013
News, Truth, and the Common Good
Greg, Robby, and Rick, amongst others, have underscored in recent days the deficiencies in the reporting of momentous events which impact us on an individual and communal basis. The underlying theme of their postings has been the thunderous reticence of much of the media in reporting the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his intentional killing of new born babies who were targeted for termination by abortion. Is there not a duty on the media’s part to report truthfully the news that impacts the common good? Those of us who are lawyers are or should be familiar with the responsibility to be accurate and forthcoming in what we present. If we do not, there are distinct consequences. Business people must do the same, and so should the members of the other learned professions. Tradespeople have duties to disclose information about consumer products and services; the failure to do so will lead to their being held accountable. But why do many members of the media think that they are different? In reporting the events of the day, it is often said by them that there is a “right” for the public to know what government officials are up to; what ecclesiastical officers must disclose by way of protection of the vulnerable; and, what folks in business are purveying to a consuming public. In justifying what they do, the media often rely on the need of the public’s “right” to know, but it seems that if the media do not think there is a story to sell, the obligation to disclose does not exist; hence, there is no “right” to know that which does not need to be known if the media determine it so. Moreover, if the media’s editors believe that publication of an important story would not accord with their editorial policies dealing with neuralgic issues, e.g., abortion and other reproductive “rights,” then the story does not merit publication in whatever format the media organ uses.
But the media, like the learned professions and businesses, do serve to a major degree the common good, i.e., the simultaneous good of each and the good of all—for the two are inextricably connected. In short, do the media not have a recognized duty to publish the truth objectively, especially about major issues and events, rather than to make its own “truth” through silence or misrepresentation? This was a theme of Benedict XVI in his 2008 World Communications Day message when he said,
We must ask, therefore, whether it is wise to allow the instruments of social communication to be exploited for indiscriminate “self-promotion” or to end up in the hands of those who use them to manipulate consciences. Should it not be a priority to ensure that they remain at the service of the person and of the common good, and that they foster “man’s ethical formation … man’s inner growth”? Their extraordinary impact on the lives of individuals and on society is widely acknowledged, yet today it is necessary to stress the radical shift, one might even say the complete change of role, that they are currently undergoing. Today, communication seems increasingly to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the force of suggestion that it possesses. It is clear, for example, that in certain situations the media are used not for the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to “create” events. This dangerous change in function has been noted with concern by many Church leaders. Precisely because we are dealing with realities that have a profound effect on all those dimensions of human life (moral, intellectual, religious, relational, affective, cultural) in which the good of the person is at stake, we must stress that not everything that is technically possible is also ethically permissible.
Perhaps not reporting major issues is not always the same thing as “creating” events, but the failure to report accurately stories of the day having an impact on the common good is surely the kind of misrepresentation for which many others, including lawyers, can be sanctioned. Indisputably the failure to report the intentional killing of newborn children is of a major concern. I wonder if many in the media find this uninteresting and not worth reporting because they have accepted the deaths of over fifty million young Americans in the reproductive health clinics of the nation? If they have conditioned themselves into accepting this tragedy, what else may they find uninteresting and therefore not worth reporting?